Charlotte Wessels: “When was the last time you heard someone ask, ‘What’s it like being a man in a metal band?’ ”
It’s the 8th of March and there may be a lot of “Girls just want to have FUNdamental human rights” on your timeline today. International Women’s Day marks a time for reflection and action on the sexism that still exists across the globe, while also celebrating the great strides that womxn have already made toward conquering the inequalities and biases they face on a daily basis. In the Netherlands, we are celebrating a hundred years of women’s suffrage, a huge milestone, but please don’t go thinking that the patriarchy has been smashed or the ceiling has been broken quite yet. Many things cross my mind on a day like this, and most of them are not happy.
It is 2019, and we haven’t exactly eliminated the need for feminism. In fact, the need for it seems more urgent than ever. A whole new level of racism, sexism, heteronormativity and classism has moved mainstream, all while many issues we’ve faced for ages seem to be tackled on a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ basis. Rape culture still exists and so does the pay gap. FGM and child marriages happen in dozens of countries and discriminatory laws are probably in place where you live. Not to mention implicit day-to-day ‘micro-aggression’ sexism, like the terms ‘bitch’ and ‘pussy’ implying weakness, female assertiveness being labelled bossy whereas a man would be praised for their leadership skills, and fast food chains still asking ‘boy toy or girl toy?’ Transgender and nonbinary folks are still fighting for people to believe that they exist, let alone actually gaining the rights that those who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth enjoy. We don’t even notice a lot of the inequity in our daily lives because it is so ingrained in us from birth, and it is part of the systems and cultures we have grown up in.
The theme of this year’s Women’s Day in The Netherlands is ‘Heroes’, and that is why, when I was asked to write up some thoughts, I wanted to address the way we talk about female artists. Not so much because I am a musician, but because I couldn’t have been one without some of the great role models I admire: my heroes. How frustrating to see that even the most famous, praised and renowned ones still battle everyday sexism in their work. “Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times”, said Bjork, after her co-producer was credited with writing her work. Now, I don’t want to overstay my welcome and dive into the history of feminism, music and women in music (give me the stage and I won’t shut up), but I do want to say that representation matters. You can’t be what you can’t see, and I hope that the next generation of little womxn has many rock stars to look up to who are valued by how much they kick ass rather than the shape of their ass. On another level, it is important for little boys to see that women can kick ass, that there is no shame in a womxn being your teacher or mentor, or even that womxn can be their bosses. Girls need to see what they can be in their future; boys need to see what roles womxn may play in their future. This will require a change in attitude though, because for many people — men and women alike — falling into a gender trap is still easy when talking to or writing about female artists.
Now, none of this hasn’t been said before, but just in case you are wondering what this ‘gender trap’ exactly is, allow me to elaborate a little bit.
The gendered talk can be subtle (but honestly mostly it’s not). An overfocus of family life (“what if you ever want babies?”, “who watches the kids while you’re on tour?”), qualifying women by their association with or relation to men (remember how long Beyonce was considered a part of Jay Z’s empire?), a disproportionate focus on the way an artist looks, describing her as a girl even though she is an adult woman, or writing in gendered language. I remember one of our first reviews describing Martijn and myself as ‘the maestro mastermind composer and the charming fiery tressed songstress.’ And honestly they’re not overselling Martijn but surely I deserve more credits then the colour of my hair, which wasn’t even my natural colour. It continues with stereotypes like equating emotion with weakness, suggesting ‘cat fights’ where there are none (the patriarchy loves nothing more then women taking each other down. Don’t buy into it.) and flat-out miscrediting achievements. In the end, most of it seems to come from a failure to see women as something more than a member of their gender, instead of as a member of, in this case, a group of musicians. Being asked time and time again what it’s like to be a women in the music industry, or a girl in the metal scene’s man’s world, feels like we have to defend our place in the industry. And the thing is, it could all be so easily avoided. It doesn’t seem so revolutionary right? To not be considered a “woman in music” but a “musician in music”.
So, next time you’re talking to a woman in music:
Instead of “How much time does it take you to do your make-up?”
Try “How much time does it take you to write a song?”
Instead of “Can you wear underwear in that outfit?”
Try “Can you tell me what inspires you as an artist?”
Instead of “Will you have children and how will you still tour?”
Try “Who would be your dream artist to tour with?”
Instead of “If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?”
Try “If you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be?”
Instead of “You’re one of the best female guitarists I’ve ever seen…”
Try “You’re one of the best guitarists I’ve ever seen…” and on that note, including womxn (and not just white womxn) on your “Best Guitarists of 2019” lists is so much cooler than having a “best female..” list.
Instead of “What’s it like being a woman in music?”
Try “What’s it like working on your new album?”
Or “What’s an important issue you support?”
Or “What is something you’ve learned over the years that made you better as an artist?”
If all of this sounds complicated, just ask yourself if whatever you’re asking would sound weird if you reversed the gender of the subject. If it sounds funny, you’re doing it wrong. When was the last time you heard someone ask, “What is it like being a man in a metal band?” or “Do you ever think you will become a father and, if you do, how will you manage being a father and touring?”
I wish you all a happy International Women’s Day. I hope the year to come will be better than the year behind us. I hope you happy and thriving and I hope you listen to music that you love. Maybe I will see you at one of Delain’s shows in 2019. For now, keep rocking!
p.s. Gender is performative
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